What Can She Do by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter VI. The Wreck
On Saturday Mr. Allen's stock was rising, and he ventured to sell a little in a quiet way. If he "unloaded" rapidly and openly, he would break down the market.
Mr. Fox watched events uneasily. Mr. Goulden grew genial and more pronounced in his attentions. Gus, on Saturday, showed almost as much solicitude for a decisively favorable answer as did Mr. Fox, if the language of his eyes meant anything; but Edith played him and Mr. Fox off against each other so adroitly that they were learning to hate each other as cordially as they agreed in admiring her. Though she inclined in her favor to Mr. Fox, he was suspicious from nature, and annoyed at never being able to see her alone.
As before, they were at cards together in the library, and Edith went for a moment into the parlor to get something. With the excuse of obtaining it for her, Mr. Fox followed, and the moment they were alone he seized her hand and pressed a kiss upon it. An angry flush came into her face, but by a great effort she so far controlled herself as to put her finger to her lips and point to the library, as if her chief anxiety was that the attention of its occupants should not be excited. Mr. Fox was delighted, though the angry flush was a little puzzling. But if Edith permitted that she would permit more, and if her only shrinking was lest others should see and know at present, that could soon be overcome. These thoughts passed through his mind while the incensed girl hastily obtained what she wished. But she, feeling that her cheeks were too hot to return immediately to the critical eyes in the library, passed out through the front parlor, that she might have time to be herself again when she appeared. On what little links destiny sometimes hangs!
That which changed all her future and that of others--that involving life and death--occurred in the half moment occupied in her passing out of the front parlor. The consequences she would feel most keenly, terribly indeed at times, though she might never guess the cause. Her act was a simple, natural one under the circumstances, and yet it told Mr. Fox, in his cat-like watchfulness, that with all his cunning he was being made a fool of. The moment Edith had passed around the sliding door and thought herself unobserved, an expression of intense disgust came out upon her expressive face, and with her lace handkerchief she rubbed the hand he had kissed, as if removing the slime of a reptile; and the large mirror at the further end of the room had faithfully reflected the suggestive little pantomime. He saw and understood all in a flash.
No words could have so plainly told her feeling toward him, and he was one of those reptiles that could sting remorselessly in revenge. The nature of the imposition practiced upon him, and the fact that it was partially successful and might have been wholly so, cut him in the sorest spot. He who thought himself able to cope with the shrewdest and most artful had been overreached by a girl, and he saw at that moment that her purpose to beguile him long enough for Mr. Allen to extricate himself from his difficulties might have been successful. He had had before an uneasy consciousness that he ought to act decisively, and now he knew it.
"I'm a fool--a cursed fool," he muttered, speaking the truth for once, "but it's not too late yet."
His resolution was taken instantly, but when Edith appeared after a moment in the library, smiling and affable again, lie seemed in good spirits also, but there was a steely, serpent-like glitter in his eyes, that made him more repulsive than ever. But he stayed as late as the others, knowing that it might be his last evening at the Allens'. For Edith had said as part of her plan for avoiding Mr. Fox:
"We shall be too busy to see any company till Tuesday evening, and then we hope to see you all."
Her sisters had assented, expecting that it would be the case.
With a refinement of malice, Mr. Fox sought to give general annoyance, by a polite insolence toward the others, which they with difficulty ignored, and a lover-like gallantry toward Edith, which was like nettles to Gus, and nauseating to her; but she did not dare resent it. He could at least torment her a little longer.
At last all were gone, and her father coming in from his club said, drawing her aside:
"All right yet?"
"Yes, but I hope the ordeal will be over soon, or I shall die with disgust, or, like some I have read of in fairy stories, be killed by a poisonous breath."
"Keep it up a little longer, that is a good, brave girl. I think that by another week we shall be able to defy him," said her father in cheerful tones. "If my stock rises as much in the next few days as of late, I shall soon be on terra firma."
If he had known that the mine beneath his feet was loaded, and the fuse fired, his full face would have become as pale as it was florid with wine and the dissipation of the evening.
Monday morning came--all seemed quiet. His stock was rising so rapidly that he determined to hold on a little longer.
Goulden met and congratulated him, saying that he had bought a little himself, and would take more if Mr. Allen would sell, as now he was easier in funds than when spoken to before on the subject.
Mr. Allen replied rather coldly that he would not sell any stock that day.
Mr. Fox kept out of the way, and quietly attended to his routine as usual, but there was a sardonic smile on his face, as if he were gloating over some secret evil.
Tuesday, the long-expected day that the Allens believed would make one of the most brilliant epochs in their history, dawned in appropriate brightness. The sun dissipated the few opposing clouds and declined in undimmed splendor, and Edith, who alone had fears and forebodings, took the day as an omen that the storm had passed, and that better days than ever were coming.
Invitations by the hundred, with imposing monogram and coat-of-arms, had gone out, and acceptances had flowed back in full current. All that lavish expenditure could secure in one of the most luxurious social centres of the world had been obtained without stint to make the entertainment perfect.
But one knew that it might become like Belshazzar's feast.
The avalanche often hangs over the Alpine passes so that a loud word will bring it whirling down upon the hapless traveller. The avalanche of ruin, impending over Mr. Allen, was so delicately poised that a whisper could precipitate its crushing weight, and that whisper had been spoken.
All the morning of Tuesday his stock was rising, and he resolved that on the morning after the party he would commence selling rapidly, and, so far from being bankrupt, he would realize much of the profit that he had expected.
But a rumor was floating through the afternoon papers that a well- known merchant, eminent in financial and social circles, had been detected in violating the revenue laws, and that the losses which such violation would involve to him would be immense. The stock market, more sensitive than a belle's vanity, paused to see what it meant. One of Mr. Allen's partners of the cloth house brought a paper to him. He grew pale as he read it, put his hand suddenly to his head, but after a moment seemingly found his voice and said:
"Could Fox have been so dastardly?"
His partner shrugged his shoulder as much as to say, "Fox could do anything in that line."
Mr. Allen sent for Fox, but he could not be found. In the meantime the stock market closed and the rise of his stock was evidently checked for the moment.
By reason of the party, Mr. Allen had to return uptown, but he arranged with his partner to remain and if anything new developed to send word by special messenger.
By eight o'clock the Allen mansion on Fifth Avenue was all aglow with light. By nine, carriages began to roll up to the awning that stretched from the heavy arched doorway across the sidewalk, and ladies that would soon glide through the spacious rooms in elegant drapery, now seemed misshapen bundles in their wrapping, and gathered up dresses as they hurried out of the publicity of the street. The dressing-rooms where the spheroidal bundles were undergoing metamorphose became buzzing centres of life.
Before the long pier glasses there was a marshalling of every charm, real or borrowed (more correctly bought), in view of the hoped-for conquests of the evening, and it would seem that not a few went on the military maxim that success is often secured by putting on as bold a front, and making as great and startling display, as possible. But as fragrant, modest flowers usually bloom in the garden with gaudy, scentless ones, so those inclined to be bizarre made an excellent foil for the refined and elegant, and thus had their uses. There is little in the world that is not of value, looking at it from some point of view.
In another apartment the opposing forces, if we may so style them, were almost as eagerly investing themselves in--shall we say charms also? or rather with the attributes of manhood? At any rate the glasses seem quite as anxiously consulted in that room as in the other. One might almost imagine them the magic mirrors of prophecy in which anxious eyes caught a glimpse of coming fate. There were certain youthful belles and beaux who turned away with open complacent smiles, vanity whispering plainly to them of noble achievement in the parlors below. There were others, perhaps not young, who turned away with faces composed in the rigid and habitual lines of pride. They were past learning anything from the mirror, or from any other source that might reflect disparagingly upon them. Prejudice in their own favor surrounded their minds as with a Chinese wall. Conceit had become a disease with them, and those faculties that might have let in wholesome, though unwelcome, truth were paralyzed.
But the majority turned away not quite satisfied--with an inward foreboding that all was not as well as it might be--that critical eyes would see ground for criticism. Especially was this true of those whom Time's interfering fingers had pulled somewhat awry, even beyond the remedy of art, and of those whose bank account, jewels, silks, etc., were not quite up to the standard of some others who might jostle them in the crush. Realize, my reader, the anguish of a lady compelled to stand by another lady wearing larger diamonds than her own, or more point lace, or a longer train. What will the world think, as under the chandelier this painful contrast comes out? Such moments of deep humiliation cause sleepless nights, and the next day result in bills that become as crushing as criminal indictments to poor overworked men. Under the impulse of such trying scenes as these, many a matron has gone forth on Broadway with firm lips and eyes in which glowed inexorable purpose, and placed the gems that would be mill-stones about her husband's neck on the fat arms or fingers that might have helped him forward. There are many phases of heroism, but if you want your breath quite taken away, go to Tiffany's, and see some large-souled woman, who will not even count the cost or realize the dire consequences--see her, like some martyr of the past, who would show to the world the object of his faith though the heavens fell, march to the counter, select the costliest, and say in tones of majesty:
"Send the bill to my husband!"
Oh, acme of faith! The martyrs knew that the Almighty was equal to the occasion. She knows that her husband is not; yet she trusts, or, what is the same thing here, gets trusted. Men allied to such women are soon lifted up to--attics. It is still true that great deeds bring humanity nearer heaven!
Therefore, my reader, deem it not trivial that I have paused so long over the Allens' party. It is philosophical to trace great events and phenomenal human action to their hidden causes.
There were also diffident men and maidens who descended into the social arena of Mrs. Allen's parlors, as awkward swimmers venture into deep water, but this is fleeting experience in fashionable life. And we sincerely hope that some believed that the old divine paradox, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," is as true in the drawing- room as when the contribution-box goes round, and proposed to enjoy themselves by contributing to the enjoyment of others, and to see nothing that would tempt to heroic conduct at Tiffany's the next day.
When the last finishing touches had been given, and maids and hairdressers stood around in rapt politic breathlessness, and were beginning to pass into that stage in which they might be regarded as exclamation points, Mrs. Allen and her daughters swept away to take their places at the head of the parlors in order to receive. They liked the prelude of applause upstairs well enough, but then it was only like the tuning of the instruments before the orchestra fairly opens.
Mrs. Allen, as she majestically took her position, evidently belonged to that class whom pride petrifies. Her self-complacency on such an occasion was habitual, her coolness and repose those of a veteran. A nervous creature upstairs with her family, excitement made her, under the eye of society, so steady and self-controlled that she was like one of the old French marshals who could plan a campaign under the hottest fire. Her blue eyes grew quite brilliant and seemed to take in everything. Some natural color shone where the cosmetics permitted, and her form seemed to dilate with something more than the mysteries of French modistes. Her manner and expression said:
"I am Mrs. Allen. We are of an old New York family. We are very, very rich. This entertainment is immensely expensive and perfect in kind. I defy criticism. I expect applause."
Of course this was all veiled by society's completest polish; but still by a close observer it could be seen, just as a skilful sculptor drapes a form, but leaves its outlines perfect.
Laura was the echo of her mother, modified by the element of youth.
Zell fairly blazed. What with sparkling jewelry, flaming cheeks, flashing eyes, and words thrown off like scintillating sparks, she suggested an exquisite July firework, burning longer than usual and surprising every one. Admiration followed her like a torrent, and her vanity dilated without measure as attention and compliments were almost forced upon her, and yet it was frank, good-natured vanity, as naturally to be expected in her case as a throng of gaudy poppies where a handful of seed had been dropped. Zell's nature was a soil where good or bad seed would grow vigorously.
Mr. Van Dam was never far off, and watched her with intent, gloating eyes, saying in self-congratulation:
"What a delicious morsel she will make!" and adding his mite to the general chorus of flattery by mild assertions like the following:
"Do you know that there is not a lady present that for a moment can compare with you?"
"How delightfully frank he is!" thought Zell of her distinguished admirer, who was as open as a quicksand that can swallow up anything and leave not a trace on its surface. Edith was quite as beautiful as Zell, but far less brilliant and pronounced. Though quiet and graceful, she was not stately like Laura. Her full dark eyes were lustrous rather than sparkling, and they dwelt shrewdly and comprehendingly on all that was passing, and conveyed their intelligence to a brain that was judging quite accurately of men and things at a time when so many people "lose their heads."
Zell was intoxicated by the incense she received. Laura offered herself so much that she was enshrouded in a thick cloud of complacency all the time. Edith was told by the eyes and manner of those around her that she was beautiful and highly favored by wealth and position generally. But she knew this, as a matter of fact, before, and did not mean to make a fool of herself on account of it. These points thoroughly settled and quietly realized, she was in a condition to go out of herself and enjoy all that was going on.
She was specially elated at this time also, as she had gathered from her father's words that his danger was nearly over and that before the week was out they could defy Mr. Fox, look forward to Europe and bright voyaging generally.
Mr. Allen did not tell her his terrible fear that Mr. Fox had been a little too prompt, and that crushing disaster might still be impending. He had said to himself, "Let her and all of them make the most of this evening. It may be the last of the kind that they will enjoy."
The spacious parlors filled rapidly. If lavish expenditure and a large brilliant attendance could insure their enjoyment, it was not wanting. Flowers in fanciful baskets on the tables and in great banks on the mantels and in the fireplaces deservedly attracted much attention and praise, though the sum expended on their transient beauty was appalling. Their delicious fragrance mingling with perfumes of artificial origin suggested a like intermingling of the more delicate, subtile, but genuine manifestations of character, and the graces of mind and manner borrowed for the occasion.
The scene was very brilliant. There were marvellous toilets--dresses not beginning as promptly as they should, perhaps, but seemingly seeking to make up for this deficiency by elegance and costliness, having once commenced. There was no economy in the train, if there had been in the waist. Therefore gleaming shoulders, glittering diamonds, the soft radiance of pearls, the sheen of gold, and lustrous eyes aglow with excitement, and later in the evening, with wine, gave a general phosphorescent effect to the parlors that Mrs. Allen recognized, from long experience, as the sparkling crown of success. So much elegance on the part of the ladies present would make the party the gem of the season, and the gentlemen in dark dress made a good black enamel setting.
There was a confused rustle of silks and a hum of voices, and now and then a silvery laugh would ring out above these like the trill of a bird in a breezy grove. Later, light airy music floated through the rooms, followed by the rhythmic cadence of feet. A thinly clad shivering little match-girl stopped on her weary tramp to her cellar and caught glimpses of the scene through the oft-opening door and between the curtains of the windows. It seemed to her that those glancing forms were in heaven. Alas for this earthly paradise!
Mr. Fox, with characteristic malice, had managed that Mr. Allen and perhaps the family should have, as his contribution to the entertainment, the sickening dread which the news in the afternoon papers would occasion. As the evening advanced he determined to accept the invitation and watch the effect. He avoided Mr. Allen, and soon gathered that Edith and the rest knew nothing of the impending blow. Edith smiled graciously on him; she felt that, like the sun, she could shine on all that night. But as, in his insolence, his attentions grew marked, she soon shook him off by permitting Gus Elliot to claim her for a waltz.
Mr. Fox glided around, Mephistopheles-like, gloating on the sinister changes that he would soon occasion. He was to succeed even better than he dreamed.
The evening went forward with music and dancing, discussing, disparaging, flirting, and skirmishing, culminating in numbers and brilliancy as some gorgeous flower might expand; and seemingly it would have ended by the gay company's rustling departure like the flower, as the varied colored petals drop away from the stem, had not an event occurred which was like a rude hand plucking the flower in its fullest bloom and tearing the petals away in mass.
The magnificent supper had just been demolished. Champagne had foamed without stint, cause and symbol of the increasing but transient excitement of the occasion. More potent wines and liquors, suggestive of the stronger and deeper passions that were swaying the mingled throng, had done their work, and all, save the utterly blase, had secured that noble elevation which it is the province of these grand social combinations to create. Even Mr. Allen regained his habitual confidence and elevation as his waist-coat expanded under, or rather over, those means of cheer and consolation which he had so long regarded as the best panacea for earthly ills. The oppressive sense of danger gave place to a consciousness of the warm, rosy present. Mr. Fox and the custom-house seemed but the ugly phantoms of a past dream. Was he not the rich Mr. Allen, the owner of this magnificent mansion, the cornerstone of this superb entertainment? If by reason of wine he saw a little double, he only saw double homage on every side. He heard in men's tones, and saw in woman's glances, that any one who could pay for his surroundings that night was no ordinary person. His wife looked majestic as she swept through the parlors on the arm of one of his most distinguished fellow-citizens. Through the library door he could see Mr. Goulden leaning toward Laura and saying something that made even her pale face quite peony-like. Edith, exquisite as a moss- rose, was about to lead off in the German in the large front parlor. Zell was near him, the sparkling centre of a breezy, merry little throng that had gathered round her. It seemed that all that he loved and valued most was grouped around him in the guise most attractive to his worldly eyes. In this moment of unnatural elation hope whispered, "To-morrow you can sell your stock, and, instead of failing, increase your vast fortune, and then away to new scenes, new pleasures, free from the burden of care and fear." It was at that moment of false confidence and pride, when in suggestive words descriptive of the ancient tragedy of Belshazzar he "had drank wine and praised the gods of gold and of silver" which he had so long worshipped, and which had secured to him all that so dilated his soul with exultation, that he saw the handwriting, not of shadowy fingers "upon the wall," but of his partner, sent, as agreed, by a special messenger. With revulsion and chill of fear he tore open the envelope and read:
"Pox has done his worst. We are out for a million--All will be in the morning papers."
Even his florid, wine-inflamed cheeks grew pale, and he raised his hand tremblingly to his head, and slowly lifted his eyes like a man who dreads seeing something, but is impelled to look. The first object they rested on was the sardonic, mocking face of Mr. Fox, who, ever on the alert, had seen the messenger enter, and guessed his errand. The moment Mr. Allen saw this hated visage, a sudden fury took possession of him. He crushed the missive in his clenched fist, and took a hasty stride of wrath toward his tormentor, stopped, put his hand again to his head, a film came over his eyes, he reeled a second, and then fell like a stone to the floor. The heavy thud of the fall, the clash of the chandelier overhead, could be heard throughout the rooms above the music and hum of voices, and all were startled. Edith in the very act of leading off in the dance stood a second like an exquisite statue of awed expectancy, and then Zell's shriek of fear and agony, "Father!" brought her to the spot, and with wild, frightened eyes, and blanched faces, the two girls knelt above the unconscious man, while the startled guests gathered round in helpless curiosity.
The usual paralysis following sudden accident was brief on this occasion, for there were two skilful physicians present, one of them having long been the family attendant. Mrs. Allen and Laura, in a half-hysterical state, stood clinging to each other, supported by Mr. Goulden, as the medical gentlemen made a slight examination and applied restoratives. After a moment they lifted their heads and looked gravely and significantly at each other; then the family adviser said:
"Mr. Allen had better be carried at once to his room, and the house become quiet."
An injudicious guest asked in a loud whisper, "Is it apoplexy?"
Mrs. Allen caught the word, and with a stifled cry fainted dead away, and was borne to her apartment in an unconscious state. Laura, who had inherited Mrs. Allen's nervous nature, was also conveyed to her room, laughing and crying in turns beyond control. Zell still knelt over her father, sobbing passionately, while Edith, with her large eyes dilated with fear, and her cheeks in wan contrast with the sunset glow they had worn all the evening, maintained her presence of mind, and asked Mr. Goulden, Mr. Van Dam, and Gus Elliot, to carry her father to his room. They, much pleased in thus being singled out as special friends of the family, officiously obeyed.
Poor Mr. Allen was borne away from the pinnacle of his imaginary triumph as if dead, Zell following, wringing her hands, and with streaming eyes; but Edith reminded one of some wild, timid creature of the woods, which, though in an extremity of danger and fear, is alert and watchful, as if looking for some avenue of escape. Her searching eyes turned almost constantly toward the family physician, and he as persistently avoided meeting them.